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Ludo - kabhi naram naram, kabhi garam garam

Pachisi, the ancient Indian game, or Parcheesi (to be enunciated with the propah "teen guna lagaan" accent) as it is known in the West, has inspired many variants. Ludo, the game, has four colored tokens - red, blue, green and yellow - racing around a square board in an intersecting cross pattern, controlled by the roll of a die. Ludo, the movie, has four colorful stories, color coded similarly, racing around a city that is never explicitly named, controlled by the actions of a mafia don. It premiered on Netflix over the Diwali weekend, but your favorite reviewer had too many other pressing engagements to be able to pen down his thoughts.

Ludo begins with two men sitting on a high vantage point, looking at and commenting on the goings on down below while playing the game. The yellow is personified by Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur) who is trying to get a sex tape of him with Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) off the Internet, an exercise in today's age akin to tilting at windmills. The green is Alu Gupta (Rajkummar Rao) who is a hapless romantic willing to go to any lengths (giving up Amitabh Bachchan for Mithun Chakraborty as your idol is the supreme sacrifice) for his childhood infatuation Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh). The red is Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), an ex-henchman, estranged from his wife and daughter, who comes across a precocious and worldly wise six year old girl Mini (Inayat Verma) with whom he forms a paternal bond. The blue is Rahul (Rohit Saraf), a salesman at a mall department store who meets a Mallu nurse (are there any other kind?) Sheeja (Pearle Maaney). These four character pairs and their seemingly disjoint story arcs are all interwoven like a Venn diagram by the die in the cast, Sattu Bhaiya (Pankaj Tripathi), a flamboyant mafia don prone to spouting lines like "When life suck, everyone fuck".

The Alu-Pinky story is the best acted and fleshed out, with Rajkummar being his usual brilliant self, showcasing swagger and vulnerability simultaneously, and Shaikh portraying demure but manipulative innocence. His line, "Kuch rishton mein logic nahi hota hai, sirf magic hota hai" encapsulates it all. The next best is Bittu-Mini with the little girl Inayat Verma stealing the show with a remarkably self-assured performance, and in the process upping Abhishek's acting game as well. The other two stories are more conventional in thought and execution and the acting is on par with that. Aditya Roy Kapur plays Aditya Roy Kapur like every Aditya Roy Kapur movie ever made. There is something a bit too self-aware about him that gets my goat every time, like the Times of India movie critic Khalid Mohammed used to always feel about Jeetendra's wooden acting skills or lack thereof. Sanya Malhotra also needs to fine tune her "bubbly" persona or she risks becoming the next Preity Zinta. Rohit plays the mousy man in a monotone and Pearl milks her Mallu-ness to the max. Which brings us to Pankaj Tripathi. The man is awesome and has developed a cult following that few "character" actors can dream of. From movies like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Masaan (2015) and Bareilly ki Barfi (2017), he has shown his range. But he is now becoming the default go-to guy for murderous mafia dons in movies like Extraction (2020) or streaming series like Mirzapur (2018, 2020), and can probably do these roles in a state of slumber. That is not to take away from his performance which is hugely entertaining, but a fine actor like him should avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping as all scripts and directors may not plumb the depths he has to offer.

Directed by Anurag Basu, whose signature is quirky characters in bizarre settings, from Barfi! (2012) to Jagga Jasoos (2017), Ludo at a running time of 2hr 30 min, is emblematic of the Bhagwan dada song that keeps playing as a leitmotif throughout, "Kismat ki hawa kabhi naram kabhi garam". The non-linear screenplay with intersecting story lines a la Pulp Fiction (1994), is always interesting and keeps one hooked and guessing as to the next move on the board, but there are passages that could have been cut without losing the essence of the story. At 20 minutes shorter, this would have been a crisp, taut offering. Even then, it is more interesting than the other Diwali offering on Amazon Prime, Chhalaang, which also had Rajkummar Rao in it. Much was expected from that with him collaborating with Hansal Mehta with whom he has done great work in Shahid (2013), Citylights (2014) and Omerta (2018), but Chhalaang is a strictly vanilla paint-by-numbers effort with not one twist or turn that couldn't be seen from a mile away.

Basu's movies are always interesting if a little too self-indulgent. He even puts himself in this one as one of the sutradhars spouting lines Manoj Kumar style like "Ludo is life, Life is Ludo". It seems he took that line literally and made a Ludo that was as long as life.

November 27, 2020

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